There’s a bitterly cold wind blowing across the car park overlooking Winterton beach and out to sea.
A few hardy souls are walking dogs, or visiting the grey seals that descend on this part of east Norfolk in their hundreds each winter to give birth to wide-eyed pups.
But that’s not why we’re shivering in the biting westerly breeze.
This is one of Christian Kinnarney’s happy places and, like the seals, his late bay camper and Karmann Beetle convertible are regular visitors to this gradually eroding stretch of coastline.
It’s where he met his wife, Sarah, while both were out walking their dogs, and where they regularly return, Deacon the Labrador and Obi and Dala, both Shiba Inu, covering the VWs in dog hair and slobber.
Precious, but not precious
All of which gives a clue to how Christian views his cars; they are there to be used and, while they may be precious to him, he is not overly precious about them.
“If they get scratched, life goes on, it’s not that important,” he says. “The dogs are important to us and, at the end of the day, the VWs are just cars.”
It’s an attitude that reflects a more relaxed approach to life since the 46-year-old moved to Norfolk from Watford 10 years ago for some peace and quiet after recovering from testicular cancer.
But it belies a deep passion for all things Volkswagen that began when, as a 15-year-old, he bought his first Beetle, saving up the £100 asking price from paper round money.
Remarkably, despite “between 50 and 100” VWs passing through his hands since, that first 1968 Beetle is still with him, waiting to be reassembled in his self-built garage after a full restoration and fresh paint job.
The final car that makes up his current quartet of VWs is a recently-acquired 1974 Sun Beetle in bright yellow, bought on impulse despite his assertions that his days of accumulating cars are behind him. At one point he had 15…
“If the Sun Beetle had not been in Norwich, I probably wouldn’t have bought it,” he says. “It was because it was close and it had the steel sliding sunroof. Generally, I’m very happy with what I’ve got, but we always look don’t we?”
Passion sparked by Herbie
Christian’s long love affair with Beetles and, by extension, other VWs, was sparked by the Herbie films of his childhood, and only grew once he got behind the wheel and under the bonnet.
“I just love the Beetle; I love the simplicity of it,” he says, back in the warm and mobbed by the three dogs.
“It’s so no frills, so basic, it’s just brilliant. If you’re going to drive to the other end of the world I would prefer to do it in a Beetle, because you can fix everything. If something goes wrong with a modern car you need a laptop and a degree to fix it.
“I love the back to basics of driving something where you press a pedal, that moves a cable, which operates a clutch. You can see everything moving and can understand how it works. This is proper mechanical engineering.
“Also, it’s a big boys’ toy. I grew up with model kits, playing with stuff, fixing things, and the Beetle is a big version of that.”
And then there’s that distinctive, air-cooled thrum, the ageless design, and the almost indefinable fun factor.
“I love the noise they make,” says Christian. “And in my eyes they don’t date, they will never go out of fashion to me, not that I’m into it for fashion. Through all the crap and all the good times in my life, the Beetles have always brought me pleasure.”
Back in 1988, that first Beetle also gave him and his late father, Kevin, a project to bond over as they joined forces to restore a car he describes as “running but rusty”.
“We did it up together as a father and son thing, and it was on the road for my 17th birthday,” he says.
“My dad borrowed a welder and he cobbled up some paint-spraying equipment out of an old fridge pump and a Calor gas bottle.
“It was already a 20-year-old car at the time and they weren’t worth a lot back then. To me it was a cheap custom car.
“Within the first year or so I was modifying it. My dad told me to leave it alone, leave it standard, but me being 17 – I knew everything.
“I lowered it and put a vinyl sunroof in. I also put one-piece windows in it, which never fit properly, so I took those out and put the quarter lights back in.
“My dad was right”
“It pains me to say it now, but my dad was right, he was a clever man.”
The Beetle was Christian’s daily driver for about four years, but became less than ideal when he started commuting deeper into London from the family’s St Albans home.
“I had got a bit of money behind me at that point and bought a modern car, and the Beetle came off the road for about three months worth of welding repairs,” he remembers, this time paying a professional welder to do the work. “Six years later, I got it back!”
That was in 2000 and, for the next 18 years, the car followed Christian around through three house moves, in various states of dismemberment and disrepair.
“Lots of cars came and went and it was just hanging about. It used to be in a greenhouse here, and it literally got to the point when I had to either set fire to it and walk away, or build it.”
As someone brought up to “make do and mend”, and an avid fan of TV programmes like Salvage Hunters and Car SOS, in truth he was probably always going to save it.
“I like taking something that’s broken, something deemed to be knackered and making it useful again,” he says.
“There’s too much of a throwaway culture; where there’s value in something, I like to save it.”
The chassis was rebuilt and repainted in 2018, while the much-regretted vinyl sunroof has made way for a sliding steel version, courtesy of a new roof from a donor car, neatly welded into place.
Parts have come from all over the world, including Germany, Holland and America, where a new old stock front beam was discovered in the Underground Garage in Las Vegas.
“I went to a show out there with a mate, and was looking for a rust-free desert axle,” says Christian. “This guy, who owns the Underground Garage, said ‘I can do better than that, I’ve got two brand new ones’.
“I brought one back as excess baggage on the plane.”
Early in 2019, the whole car was resprayed by TSE Autos, a bodyshop that Christian and Sarah stumbled upon while collecting an old church pew they’d bought on Facebook.
On arrival, they spotted a Beetle in the workshop.
“Viktor had repaired some rust under the back window in exactly the same spot as my 1968 Bug, and he said he could do mine,” says Christian.
“I got them to respray one of the wings to gauge the quality of their work.”
Suitably satisfied, the ‘68 Beetle went off to workshop on the old RAF Coltishall airfield in March, returning in August with a fresh coat of VW Lotus White.
No rush, no deadline
Now Christian just has to put it all back together but, unlike in his younger days, there’s no rush, and no deadline.
Once upon a time, the cars represented almost everything good in life, but meeting Sarah has changed all that.
“In the past, I had been building cars just to get them done. I’ve remembered that the reason I’m into this is because it’s a hobby, and I’m happy to just enjoy building this one and not making it a chore.
“When I’ve had enough or I’m cold or tired, I’ll put the tools away and not beat myself up about it.”
As well as a shared love of dogs, and Star Wars, the couple also enjoy the cars together; it’s no longer a solitary pursuit.
“I used to just go out in the cars on my own, and go to shows with my mates,” says Christian. “But Sarah loves the old cars as well. We go to car shows together, take the dogs to the beach, and it’s nice that she enjoys it as much as I do.”
Things used to be very different, with an almost scattergun approach to buying cars not untypical of young petrolheads.
“I used to go to car shows and was ‘I want one of them, and one of them’,” he admits. “There was always stuff coming and going. I’d realise I can’t keep everything, so I’d have to sell them to move on to the next one.
“I kind of had, at that point, the ideal that it’s not he who dies with the most toys wins, it’s he who plays with the most toys.
“Now I’m older, I don’t want all that anymore, I want what I’ve got. I’ve had the bus for 15 years, and the convertible for five years – I don’t have that want to want the next thing any more.
“I came off the wagon for a very short moment with the Sun Beetle!”
Christian has owned too many VWs to list, or possibly even remember them all, as well as a few Saabs and Citroen 2CVs.
While still living at home with his parents, he bought a 1968 bay window camper, jacked in his job and travelled around Europe with his then girlfriend.
“We went to France, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Holland, had a brilliant time and met a lot of cool people who are now friends,” he says.
After moving out of home and renting rooms in shared houses, he had to sell the camper to save money for a flat.
“I just had the Beetle and my modern daily driver, and I thought ‘I’m never going to have another toy again’. Within six months I had bought another camper!”
Many more followed, including a couple of bay windows brought back from Florida sight unseen, several Golfs including a Mk2 G60 he regrets selling, a Mk1 Polo, and a multivan Blue Star camper.
All these came and went and, in 2005, Christian went on holiday to California and discovered he could buy a rust-free bus for less than they cost in the UK, including shipping costs.
“I decided to buy a Californian bus and I was saving money to go back there the next year to buy one,” he says. “But what if I go out there and don’t find what I want, which was a green 2-litre late bay Westfalia? I would be spending £2,000 to come back with nothing, or buying something I don’t want.
“At the time, Volksaholics were bringing buses over and had four green, late bay window Westfalias. I fell in love with this one, imported from San Luis Obispo in California, and decided to buy it in this country.”
Christian paid £5,900 for the 1978 Taiga Green camper, complete with original paintwork, and it’s been with him ever since.
Over the years it’s benefited from some sympathetic restoration, including a pair of front seats from a T25, trimmed in original VW plaid, a refoamed bed, new fridge, and new canvas for the pop-top, which had torn after being baked in the California sun.
“That’s been over to Germany for the Bad Camberg VW show,” says Christian. “We did a week on the continent, visited the dams featured in The Dam Busters and visited a Bridge Too Far at Arnhem, and I’ve been over to Belgium a couple of times to see friends.
“Now it’s used for weekends away in the UK, and everything else, including tip runs while we restore our Victorian house.”
Christian was back in California in 2014, a two-week trip with a friend to attend some shows and look for a convertible to buy.
The 1979 Karmann 1303 convertible, with mostly original River Blue paint, was the fourth car he viewed in different parts of Los Angeles.
“It had been owned by a university professor from new,” he says. “It was still his daily driver, and he said he had the roof down most of the time. He was getting rid of it because he was getting too old to open and close the roof all the time, and he bought a BMW with a power roof instead.
“It had become a bit dirty and a few things weren’t working, but I loved the originality.”
Google Street View shows the car in its former habitat, parked on Lyric Avenue in LA in July 2014.
“I still had a week left out there, so I asked the shippers if they could hang on to it for a week and I kept going back and filled it with loads of parts to help fix it,” he says.
It needed a little extra fixing after the journey over, however, the shippers damaging the rear wings in transit.
“They put four cars in one container, stacking them upright at an angle, and when they tightened the straps to lash it down it had bounced on its suspension and damaged the rear wings,” he adds, later claiming off the shippers’ insurance for the damage.
That, and the sun-faded paintwork on the bonnet, “tells a story”.
Once home, Christian rebuilt the brakes, suspension, and fixed some of the dodgy electrics.
“I just made everything work as it should work, and then just enjoyed it,” he says.
Finally, there’s the limited edition, UK-only Sun Beetle, a local car that had been off the road for five or six years.
“I’ve bought it as another toy, it doesn’t need very much doing to it but it’s something else to keep me occupied,” he says.
“The lady who owned it before me had it for 25 years. I’ve made Beetle owners cry over the years buying their cars from them, and she also cried.”
It’s a reaction that sums up how these humble little cars can get under the skin, and stay there.
Just ask Christian.
Photographs by Simon Finlay